Vorderbrueggen: Clean water ballot smells

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times

Contra Costa property owners received their "clean water initiative" ballots in the mail last week, and it left quite a few folks holding their noses.

In truth, it is a legal election conducted by a consortium of the county and its 19 cities called the Contra Costa Clean Water Program. State law permits public agencies to seek a majority landowner approval for fees through a direct mail election.

And, yes, people have fierce and disparate opinions about the program itself.

Nonetheless, the cities and the county say they need the fee to meet tightening federal and state regulations intended to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff into San Francisco Bay, creeks, lakes and groundwater.

But the bulk of the irate callers hate the way the clean water program managers are running the election.

The critics call it an attempt to sidestep the two-thirds vote threshold imposed on new taxes, and an untenable departure from democratic balloting procedures.

No one denies the former. Unfunded federal and state mandates often land on the shoulders of local agencies, which are forced to become increasingly creative in finding ways to pay for them.

As for the latter, the election procedures are troubling.

The ballot literature contains no independent analysis of the fee. There are no opponents' statements. Both are required of initiatives and referendums that appear on traditional ballots.

Instead, the documents sent to voters -- using public money -- are unabashedly promotional and clearly skirt the fine line between express electioneering and educational material. Public agencies cannot legally use taxpayer money to promote or oppose measures, but they can spend it on "public education" materials.

"I have no way to make an intelligent decision based on the materials provided in my ballot," said one property owner. "This material was prepared entirely by the proponents, who are then responsible for tallying the votes. It's absolutely ridiculous."

Then there is the question about why the election does not use a secret ballot.

The ballot requires the property owner to sign and date the actual ballot. In a traditional election, the voter signs the outside of the envelope, and election officials extract and separate the anonymous ballot that contains the actual vote.

"It's un-American," said another property owner. "How can this be legal?"

Looking at the campaign materials in his ballot, Supervisor John Gioia says he now regrets voting to put the fee before property owners.

"I am very unhappy with how this campaign is being conducted," Gioia said. "This program has some clear benefits, but the campaign is, well, screwed up."

RECOVERY ROAD: Contra Costa Supervisor Gayle Uilkema's absence from the public eye in the past month has generated concern over her yearlong battle against ovarian cancer.

Not to worry, she explained Thursday over the phone in a strong and clear voice.

Doctors diagnosed her with pneumonia -- exacerbated by her chemo treatments -- and ordered rest. "I'm grounded," she joked.

She hopes to make a short appearance at Tuesday's board meeting and will resume her customary nonstop meeting schedule as her health permits.

But even though you can't see her, she may be listening to you.

When the board of supervisors last week met at the Lesher Center for the daylong appeal of a 60,000-square-foot sanctuary in Saranap, Uilkema was listening from her Lafayette home thanks to a digital hookup.

NO DELIVERY FOR YOU: The unofficial U.S. Post Service motto says "neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

But budget cuts? Forget it.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen is pleading with the feds to delay a scheduled closure of 15 additional mail processing centers in California until after the November general election.

In past elections, voters who cast their ballots by mail could drop their envelopes in the mail on the Friday before and make the 8 p.m. Election Day (a Tuesday) deadline.

With fewer processing centers, a ballot that used to spend three days in transit could take as long as a week.

Bowen fears thousands of backlogged vote-by-mail ballots will arrive at election offices too late and won't be counted. Her agency needs more time to educate voters.

GOT POLITICS? Read the Political Blotter at IBABuzz.com/politics.

AND FINALLY: Folks who attended a symphony at Davies Hall in San Francisco in early February were handed a flier outside the door:

"Dear Concert-goer: We enjoy symphony music just as you do ... What we don't enjoy is how -- at the same time that it donates some money and stamps its logo on your program -- the Chevron Corporation is demanding a $168 million tax refund on the refinery property that produces its ever ballooning profits.

"This refund would devastate our city, Contra Costa County and the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

"Please enjoy tonight's performance with us but know the concert actually is underwritten by the good people of Richmond."

The authors are referring to Chevron's eight consecutive annual appeals of the taxable values Contra Costa County assigned to its Richmond refinery.

While the flier misses on a few notes of fact, you have to admit that is a catchy tune.

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com, IBABuzz.com/politics or Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.